Saturday, November 12, 2011

Isolating Syria: Be Careful What You Wish For

The Arab League has voted to suspend Syria - a move that will isolate Bashar al-Assad even more in the region and beyond.  As WaPo notes,

until now, Arab states have indeed seemed hesitant to criticize Syria. The Arab League did not meet to discuss the spiraling violence until August, five months after the protests erupted, and Saturday’s measures came only after weeks of deliberation, deadlines and unfulfilled promises by the Assad government.

The slow response contrasts with the swift measures taken to suspend Libya weeks after the February uprising, opening the door to the adoption of the U.N. resolution that authorized NATO airstrikes and helped bring about Moammar Gaddafi’s demise. The United States cited the Arab censure of Libya as being instrumental in determining its decision to support military action.

International military intervention in Syria is still considered a remote possibility despite repeated calls by protesters for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone. But the lifting of Arab “cover” will make it harder for Russia and China to justify their vetoes of tougher action, including possible sanctions, at the U.N. Security Council, said Shaikh.

Turkey, which has repeatedly condemned Assad but taken no concrete steps against him, may also be encouraged to fall in line with the rest of the region and adopt economic sanctions that could have a significant effect on its neighbor’s economy, he said.

Assad can count on the support of Iran as well as neighboring Lebanon, whose government is controlled by the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement. Fears of triggering a regionwide war in which Iran and Hezbollah spring to Syria’s defense are among the reasons why world powers have been reluctant to intervene.

The Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which abstained in the vote, is concerned that regime change in Syria would destabilize Iraq’s delicate sectarian balance, and it has shown no inclination to support measures against Assad.

Of the countries that either voted against the suspension (Lebanon and Yemen) or abstained (Iraq), two have Shia majorities - and the third - Yemen - has a significant Shia minority, but probably voted against because President Saleh is on the way to being run out on a rail just as Assad is; one dictator standing by another.  (And frankly, President al-Maliki of Iraq is steadily creeping into the dictator ranks himself - as much as the US touts Iraq as a model democracy for the putative "new Middle East."

But we really have no idea what a post-Assad Syria is going to look like, except that Syria's Sunni Arab majority - especially the more Islamist elements among them - are going to insist on better representation in any new government.  That will worry Iraq's Shia majority, still triumphant but paranoid after the termination of so many decades of Sunni rule - and it may not sit well with Iraq's Kurds (not to mention Syria's own substantial Kurdish population).

It's entirely possible that Syria will spin out into sectarian warfare, at least in some regions.  And some in the West - and Israel - may find themselves wishing for the good old days of the Assads, pere et fils.

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